Monday, 28 July 2014

Word Factory Short Story Reading Club - George Saunders

A world comes into focus when discussing a short story

This month I have spent a blissfully enormous amount of time around writers, first on an Arvon course (with Jon Mcgregor and Helen Oyeyemi) and then at the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna. As a result, I don’t think there has been a day in July when I have not had a conversation about George Saunders! This all came to a head on Saturday when, at the Word Factory short story club, we discussed Saunders’ tragi-comic story ‘The End of FIRPO in the world’.

The story follows the pre-adolescent Cody as he cycles around his American suburban neighbourhood, his thoughts revealing an unhappy life and his plans to take revenge on a local family for their snobbish mockery of him. The stream of consciousness is a hilarious and poignant mixture of joyous fantasy and unpleasant memories, until the story takes a sudden turn...

Hobbes' epithet of life as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short seems fitting here, for Cody’s life and Cody himself. In the very first sentence he refers (in the curious third person narration created by Cody giving a running commentary on himself inside his head) to one neighbour as a 'chink’ and another as a ‘squatty-body’, whose unfortunate cat Cody has hit with a ‘lug nut on a string’. His behaviour doesn’t get much better – his revenge plan involves blocking the Dalmeyer’s hosepipe to make it explode. 

But in amongst his comical phrases and wonderful imaginings (he plans to shrink the neighbours with a ‘special miniaturising ray’ and then use them to plant ‘hideous boogers of assassination’ in another boy’s thermos) we start to spot reasons for Cody’s attitude. He is teased and abused relentlessly by the posh Dalmeyers, whom Saunders deprecatingly depicts with ‘confident underwater watches’ and ‘nice tan pants’, and also by his mother and her boyfriend. It is the latter who calls him FIRPO, and the fact that the seeming acronym is never explained only makes its insulting nature more affecting as we wonder what it means. Another mystery is Cody’s ‘nosehole noise’, which also provokes mockery even though he seems to do it when anxious or upset. 

In the group discussion of this story, we talked about redemption, this being a requirement that many people seem to have of a short story. For me, Cody is redeemed by his wonderful imagination, which is what gives the story its joy while it lasts. For others, he is redeemed by the fact that we figure out, whilst he doesn’t, that he is a product of those around him and their unpleasantness. At the end of the story, without revealing too much, Cody does not believe it when a stranger tells him he is good. He is certain he is ‘FIRPO’ and that this man is too for saying something like that. Some readers saw this stranger as a Christ-like figure – he is stick-thin, with ‘a silver cross hanging down.’ Does his insistence that God loves Cody redeem him? For some, Cody’s rejection of this simply showed how religion fails to redeem. Never expect agreement in a short story reading group! 

Talking about this very short story (only 9 pages) in a group revealed just how much was going on in there, and how many interpretations are available. Different readers drew different comparisons – Kurt Vonnegut, J D Salinger and Mark Haddon all came up – and so many ideas in the room made me see the story through new lenses. The voices George Saunders has created in his collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December are often funny, but the more I looked at this one the more haunting it became.

If you’d like to get involved in discussing short stories, check the Word Factory Short Story Club page for up-coming meetings. They’re free and all are welcome, writers, enthusiasts and the curious alike.

1 comment:

  1. The New York, for the summer only, has opened their online archives to no subscribers. I have found at least two George Saunders so far. Both were wonderful works.